Jan Maruhn, “Curious people have always been drawn to Berlin”

Jan Maruhn

Jan Maruhn runs one of the busiest art spaces in the city: Berlin’s Bildhauerwerkstatt which roughly translates into Sculpture Workshop. But it is so much more than that: In its seven workshops in Wedding, it provides ideal working conditions for visual artists, from all over the world who wish to realise a project in this city. “Actually, there’s nothing like it elsewhere in Europe”, says Jan Maruhn, an art historian who goes on to narrate stories about Hugo Simon -the Jewish banker, politician, pacifist and art collector whose biography he’s working on-  the fate of art collections under the Third Reich, post war restitution policies in East and West Germany and the reasons for Berlin’s persisting allure.  


From the little I know, this houses a lot more than a sculpture workshop.

At the time it was founded, in 1986, things were different than they are now regarding scupture. Sculptors were working in stone, metal, wood or doing ceramics. Naturally things have changed during the last 25 years; the concept of art has broadened in the sense that working with three-dimensional objects is not anymore connected to one specific material but can involve combinations of different materials. So we are now basically talking about mixed-media objects that are being created in these Sculpture Workshops.      


Which are the specific workshops that one finds on the grounds of the Bildhauerwerkstatt?

There are five main workshops, or may I say sections, for each of which there is a technical supervisor who is available to offer the artists assistance and guidance. So there are workshops for metal, wood, plaster, stone and ceramics. But added to those, we also have a workshop with a 3D laser scanning system – we’re steadily keeping an eye on the future.      


This means that one may not only find sculptors working in the premises, right?

Right. You will find any artist who needs a three dimensional space so as to work on a project. It is people who come from the digital world, people who come from painting or simply artists who have an idea -even a very vague one- about a specific project and wish to explore all possibilities and all technical means available. As with everything in life, “opportunity makes the thief”. I mean that when artists acquaint themselves with all the technical possibilities and solutions that are at their disposal in these spaces, then they begin to take advantage of them in their different ways. This has always been very important to us: to provide the artists with whatever technical tools are available to realize their ideas. This has always been so, throughout the history of art. Lithography was not invented for the sake of Toulouse-Lautrec, but for wholly different uses. But art needed the access to new techniques and tools so as to evolve. And then, last but by no means least, the Bildhauer Werkstatt is a place of social interaction.


I suppose this is inevitable, but you seem to consider it very important. Why is this ? 

It is indeed very important and it’s something that had not occurred to me before coming to work here. And yet it plays a significant role that artists have the freedom to work independently on their projects, in their separate studios, while also having every opportunity to seek technical assistance at any given point, as well as to socialise and exchange thoughts and ideas with their colleagues. People here have the chance to meet over lunch, build relationships, even make friends. The fact that artists can work and interact in a kind of very loose group, is an aspect that in my opinion should not be underestimated.


How simple is it for an artist to request a space in the premises and start working? What would be the minimum and maximum amount of time one can rent a space for?

Our unwavering principle has always been that here we function on a first come, first serve basis. It makes no difference whatsoever whether an artist is famous or not. If you ask me, that’s a simply perfect way to work. An artist comes here, rents a space for a very reasonable price and begins work – right away. And this can be just a day or may extend to half a year. After six months, if someone wants to keep on renting the studio, they simply make a new application. And actually our experience is that people usually need more time than they originally thought they did in order to complete a project. In any case we have never asked an artist to take their unfinished project and leave. We’d never do that and we don’t have to; this place is 3,500 m2 big. On the contrary we make every effort to offer technical as well as emotional support, so as to ensure that a project will come to fruition under the best possible circumstances.


What do you mean by emotional support?

It is often the case that an artist may come here –this is especially true of very young artists- having an idea for a project, but not much more. Which is totally natural. They may know what they are aiming at, they may have a vision, but are not aware of the means to realise it or the exact way to go about it. And this is where we can be useful, by guiding the artist through all the possibilities available until the project is brought to completion, without instilling in them the doubt that their envisioned project might be marred. In order to do this, we must be capable of offering emotional support and be there during the difficult phases, too. Or especially then. Of course, there are people who are totally in control of their tools and do not care for any kind of guidance or assistance. But in any case, technical support is not nearly enough when working with people. What is crucial is to understand what is the best way to cooperate with each artist.


How many are usually at work here in any given time?

There are more or less 400 people working here in a year.


Where do most of them come from? Are there many Berlin residents among them?

Sure, there are people who live here for shorter or longer periods and need a studio, but the artists that are working here basically come from all over the world; from different countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, America. There is a very good reason for this: this place is actually one of its kind. There is an experiment with a similar space in Scotland, but the scale is very much smaller. There are thoughts and the intention of establishing something like this in Stockholm and we actually support this option. We are also collaborating with artists so as to establish something in Hamburg. But for now the Bildhauerwerkstatt in Berlin offers something that is singular in Europe.


When taking up this post, what was it that you found most attractive about the position of the director of the Bildhauerwerkstatt?  

I first started working here in 1999, first as an assistant to the director and then as director. I am a trained art historian, I have written and lectured at length on Mies van der Rohe  and 20th century architecture; I still do as these are subjects I am still very much occupied with. However it felt very exciting and challenging to become involved in the actual, day to day process of creation. I cherished the opportunity to step outside the ivory tower and watch the way artists work in their studio.    


Do you find it easy to approach and appreciate a work of art as an expert but at the time time to still be able to enjoy it as an absolute beginner?

Oh, yes, this is possible. In fact it is not only possible, it comes naturally. On the one side, 25 years of experience obviously are in themselves a reason for one to feel confident. I mean that when you have already seen a lot, in art or architecture, you have developed a discerning eye and a feeling for what is important. One sees a lot of interesting new things, but it makes a difference to be able to realize it when you are looking in front of something important. And even in the studios, here, when looking at a yet unfinished work -especially together with the artist who has created it- I am in a position to appreciate it, to judge how far ahead it is and how authentic, in the real sense of the word, something is. And in general I usually do not spend much, or indeed any, time reading about the artist. I just take my time to observe the object itself.


Do you think it is more helpful to have the work of art commented upon, by a text or is it enough to simply confront the object?

I can only speak for myself. I care much less, if at all, about the theoretical superstructure – I think there are artworks where it plays a role. But in so many instances a text or a quote by, say, Baudrillard is there merely to enhance or elevate the object in view. I don’t think these are necessarily essential or add anything to the whole thing. And anyway, these French post structuralist texts can fit in practically everywhere. In this sense there’s an arbitrariness about them which makes them unimportant. There is no reason to embelish a work that already has its own form. I happen to thnk that a work of art is not in need of enhancement through a theoretical or philosophical commentary. Granted, some may stand to benefit from it but these are actually quite few. Most works of art have a certain power that is their form itself; and this is enough, absolutely. The theoretical superstructure is more often than not redundant. You see, one tends to read the same thing all over again, which of course is not fair to the artworks. As far as I am concerned, what interests me is to observe how a form evolves. Even the artists’ statements are often unnecessary; unless of course the artist is very eloquent. But even then, I much prefer to look straight at the object.


Is there an artist at whose work you keep returning to? Someone that no matter how much you know about or how many works you have seen, you never cease to rediscover?

Not just one, but many. It depends on what I am working on at any given time, what I am preoccupied with. So when I am looking into Roman Baroque churches, for example, I am obviously drawn to Borromini, through whom I am simultaneously drawn to Bernini; and so I find myself looking at two artists who complement each other while being very different, at times even contradictory. Then I would definitely name Mondrian, because of the effect he had on me while I was still a teenager living in a world where everyone worshiped Salvador Dali  – however I should note that appreciating Dali is not at all easy, one should be well versed in psychoanalysis, it’s not just spin. But the clarity of Mondrian was very dear to me in my youth; this esoteric world, this clarity to which there was so much more.  And then there is Raphael with his Sistine Madonna in Dresden, a picture that everyone knows. We are all familiar with the two little angels at the bottom of the painting, yet we cannot explain them. Why are they there? The painting keeps its secrets dearly and it is still a challenge to try to reveal them. Lately I find I have developed a special interest in Italian Renaissance and Mannerism, in the sense that this is art which we are all acquainted with, images that we know and believe we have decoded; yet we have not been granted true access to them. It is as if they are withdrawing to a space not accessible to us.


You are working on a biography of the German-Jewish banker and art collector Hugo Simon. What drew you to his story?

This is how it started. Many years ago, together with Nina Senger and JanThomas Köhler, we curated an exhibition at the bauhaus archiv and published a book, Berliner Lebenswelten der zwanziger Jahre. It was based on a series of pictures the photographer Martha Huht had made at the beginning of the century of the interiors of houses among which was the house of Hugo Simon, in Tiergarten – it has since been destroyed. After completing this, we were thinking that we wanted to do some more research into the peace movement during World War I, with which Simon was engaged. One thing led to another and we decided to work on his biography. Here was an extremely interesting personality: a man very actively involved with the human rights movement, a politician of the Left who was the first Prussian Finance Minister after World War I, who also is a very successful banker who collects art.


How did Hugo Simon react to the takeover of power by Hitler in 1933?

He did not waste any time, he emigrated to France right away. He was one of the very few people who were given the status of political refugee and were thus granted asylum in France. What is remarkable is that he succeeded in moving his banking business with him and starting all over again.


What happened to his art collection? Did he leave it behind?

He managed to take a large part of it out of the country and ship it to Paris. This was quite a feat. How he managed to pull it through, we do not exactly know. Another part of was stored in Switzerland, at the Kunstmuseum Basel and a third part was sent to Amsterdam. The whole collection comprised 150 works; paintings and sculptures.


France, though, could not have been much safer for a Jewish banker.

Of course not. And so he fled France, at the very last minute before the Germans came: in 1941 he boarded a ship with his family and left for Spain and from there over Portugal they travelled all the way to Brazil. Hugo Simon wanted to go to the US but he didn’t make it there. Escaping Europe under these circumstances meant that he had to leave everything behind; his collection as well as his bank. In Brazil he led a quiet, simple life. He was in his mid fifties. But looking at the pictures of the family arriving in South America it is already apparent that here is a broken man.


What was happened to his estate?

What is very sad is that when his daughters applied for a compensation from the German state after the war, they received what by any standards was a very small sum of money. It is awful to read the case file and realise that they almost had to beg. That it was hard to get what they rightfully theirs during the Nazi time is understandable, but that things were still hard in the 1950s is deeply disappointing. The only serious compensation that they managed to get was the amount of 40,000 DM for their family house. Now this sounds ridiculous to us, but for post war standards it made sense. After the reunification of Germany the descendants of the family requested and were granted again ownership of the Hugo Simon’s country house in Seelow. As for the collection, a part of the art works were restituted to them – the pieces that had been stored in Switzerland and the Netherlands. But another big part had disappeared – the part that had remained in Paris. There were some artworks also in Seelow; the post war Finance Ministry of the GDR, which had control of the property that had been confiscated during the war, had turned those over to the National Gallery. After the fall of the Wall these were among the pieces that were returned to the family.


And this was also true of that part of the collection that had never left Germany?

The traces of those pieces that had been left inside the family house, in Tiergarten, have been lost. In any case it is extremely hard to reconstruct the route of each part of the Hugo Simon collection.


What was the character of Hugo Simon’s collection?

He used to collect pieces by artists who were quite different in style. One has to keep in mind that before the war any bourgeois with a considerable fortune was expected to buy art. But very few of the collection created during that time can really be characterized as avant garde. Today we have the impression that the most famous collections mainly include paintings by the German Expressionists, and this is mostly accurate; however those artworks were by no means recent at the time they were acquired. A Kirchner bought in 1925 had been painted in 1912, which is the equivalent of buying now a work created in 1959. An exception would be the collection of Ida Bienert, which is now housed in Dresden; she bought mainly abstract art. Unlike Ida Bienert, Hugo Simon was a collector of more conventional taste who made purchases on the basis of what he liked rather on a specific plan.


You earlier mentioned that the estate of Hugo Simon that was located in the GDR, was only returned to his descendants after the reunification. Didn’t the GDR ever discuss restituting Jewish property that had been seized by the Nazis?

No, never and there are several reasons for that. First of all the GDR was no great proponent of private property as we all know. But basically the state did not see itself as the post war heir of the Third Reich, as was the case of course for West Germany – and rightly so of course. East Germans saw themselves as being firmly on the side of the winners, who had no connection to a nazi past. “We are the anti-fascists and we are now free, the others are the swines”; that was the mentality. There were no bad guys at their side of the border. This was not at all accurate, of course.


I know that it sounds banal, but isn’t it actually true that Berlin is like a never-ending work in progress? Everywhere you look something is being built or rebuilt, non-stop.  

This is definitely a Berlin characteristic; and one that makes it a city destined to always becoming, instead of being. Then again this has in large part to do with the fact that Berlin is a relatively young city. Having said this, the dynamics of a city depend not only on the built environment, but mainly on the people who inhabit it. Berlin has always been a place where people have being confronted with the past; and willingly so. There are more books on the history of Berlin than there are for any other German city – and this despite it being a pretty short history. But what is decisive is the fact that people in Berlin are always very curious about what is happening around them, they are very inquisitive. Everyone, from a young secretary to an old professor have an active interest in the city’ architecture, in what is being built around them, as in what is happening in the arts’ scene. A large part of this city’s population is interested in art.      


What could be the reason for this city attracting people of a curious nature? Or awakening people’s curiosity? Is it a coincidence?

It has a lot to do with the city’s whole tourist scene that first developed in the 1920s, or even the 1910s. People would arrive in a city of relatively little tradition, where the connection to the Church was minimal. This meant that Berlin allowed people a freedom that elsewhere was not possible. This trait has played a decisive role in different ways at different times throughout the city’s history. Berlin is different from other big German cities in one other way – and this is true also to this day: in Munich and Hamburg one feels the presence of many decades old elites; be they families or tradesmen, they are setting the tone in their respective cities. Berlin is nothing like that, in the sense that although there are of course a few old families, especially in West Berlin, there has never existed a specific large group that defined how the life in the city must look like. This means that anyone with a certain ambition or a talent, may come here and seek out people who share the same interests in order to form a group, to discuss, to collaborate. And this is possible to achieve in all areas of interest, be it the financial world, the art world, or the academia. So one does not speak of an elite, but of many separate elite groups.

Coming to Berlin, one does not stumble on a world that is solid and impenetrable. Now imagine how crucial this was back in the 19th century, as the city was developing, when there were no more than a few businesses and a couple of intellectuals. World War I came and this small elite disappeared with it. Then came a new elite, during the 1920s; and this generation also disappeared between 1933 and 1945. After the war very few of them were still around. And then, between 1961 and 1990 another elite slowly formed. This means that in the shortest amount of time, there was a succession of very different social formations that set the tone in the city. Naturally this has translated to a relative lack of tradition, but on the other hand it has been the source of an unbelievable freedom.


Would it be correct to say that in this sense, Berlin is an exception among the rest of the European capitals?  

Yes, definitely. There are some similarities with Warsaw in this respect, but still Berlin is an exception.


Did you grow up in Berlin or are you one of those people who were drawn to the city?

I was born here. I grew up in Zehlendorf, in West Berlin .    


How was your interest in the visual arts awakened? Growing up in Berlin were you exposed to the arts early on?

Yes, in fact I was. My father was an artist -not a successful one- and he very gently and very early on directed us toward an appreciation of art. My parents had what I consider a wonderful way of educating us: They would us take us children to the Gemäldegalerie, for example, and made it clear that we were able to choose which paintings we wanted to spend time looking at. All the while, they were also spending time with the artworks that interested them. Afterwards, if we wanted to know more about a painting we were encouraged to ask and talk about it. If we didn’t want to talk, that was just as well. The point was to allow us to discover what we liked and to let our natural curiosity lead the way.


So they merely attempted a gentle push? How well did it work?

It worked amazingly. I remember myself at the age of 12 or 13 having a very clear interest in Baroque architecture, for instance.


This sounds quite unusual for a 12-year-old.

It does, yes. But I would never have thought of my tastes at the time as unusual, or as anything out of the ordinary, not at all. We had a Lexicon of Baroque Houses at home and I would spend a lot of time looking through its pages, I was fascinated by the pictures. And when I reached the last pictures I was amazed: it was a photograph of the Villa Stein-de Monzie, by Le Corbusier. I was very impressed, I had never seen anything like it. So my father went to the library, brough back a few books for me. That was all – I knew that if I wanted to know more I was free to go to the library myself and decide what to read.


If a foreign friend asked you to recommend a book or a film about Berlin, something that would help one to start making sense of the city, what would it be?

I would definitely recommend someone to watch “A Foreign Affair”, by Billy Wilder. And as for novels, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” comes to mind. But to anyone who really wants to get to know Berlin I would suggest to pick one of the many very well written biographies of people who have lived in this city – from the memoirs of Joachim Fest, to the biography of a man like Sebastian Haffner, who also had the experience or migration. And I would advise visitors to Berlin to explore the city starting from the suburbs, where one can observe how the bourgeoisie lives. In any big city they are the ones who define its character.



Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, April 2014BerlinInterviewslogo